The following article is copyrighted by Sarah Hartwell and presented by the Feral Cat Coalition with permission. Sarah has written many articles about feral conditions in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia. Many of her works were originally intended for audiences outside the U.S., but the information is very good and useful to people from all corners of the globe. One of her original reasons for research and writing was to raise money for feral programs.
Australia's unique wildlife apparently risks being hunted to extinction unless the cat population is controlled. Native fauna is ill-equipped to deal with this naturalised predator. Three types of cat are recognised: domestic cats which are wholly dependent on humans, unowned stray cats which rely on humans to some extent and feral cats whose reliance on humans is minimal. They can breed 3 or 4 times a year, averaging 4 kittens per litter and can rapidly establish colonies wherever there is a good food source.
At present there is much conflicting "information" about the amount of damage done by cats in Australia. Some authorities claim that cats are hunting native wildlife to extinction. Others claim cats are unfairly targeted, since overclearing and overstocking of land in the late 1800s and the introduction of the Red Fox for sport in 1910 had a worse impact on wildlife numbers.
Not surprisingly, this has led to pro-cat and anti-cat camps in Australia, with dubious survey statistics being used to fuel the debate.
In 1993, the Australian Museum surveyed 6,800 people about "Cat Attitude," and unsurprisingly, cat owners perceived cats to be less of a threat than did non-owners. 40% of respondents owned cats; 59% of these kept them as pets while, somewhat ironically, 9% kept them to control vermin. Although 72% of owners said that their cats were neutered, the survey suggested that the neutering rate is much lower in the wider community and many people allowed females to have kittens first. Almost 70% of owners allowed cats outdoors at night, prime hunting time, although 40% fitted their cat with a bell in a largely unsuccessful attempt to curb hunting two thirds of cats killed native animals.
A survey by Adelaide zoologist (known to strongly dislike cats) Dr. David Paton stated that cats kill 3.8 billion animals and birds annually. However, Professor J. R. Egerton of Sydney University disputes these figures which were extrapolated from 709 survey returns (out of 2,000 sent out) from the Adelaide area, 627 of which came from ornithological society members. The response rate of 35% was unacceptably low, probably biased and there was apparently no followup work.
Cats Assistance to Sterilise (C.A.T.S.) found that cats were often blamed when in fact the "victim" was already dead, sick or injured. A member of Bird Care and Conservation was aware of a cat which regularly brought in dead canaries. When she investigated, she found that it was scavenging dead canaries from an aviary-owner's rubbish bin. In another case, a cat retrieved a bird hit and injured by a car. Such cases raise questions about both the Museum survey and Dr. Paton's survey.
To put Dr. Paton's figures in perspective, Wildlife Information and Rescue Service (WIRES) in Dubbo, New South Wales applied his methods to a survey of road-killed wildlife along a single stretch of road over several days. Using this equally unrepresentative sample they arrived at a figure of 19 road-killed animals per kilometre of road annually. Multiplying that by the amount of road in the whole of Australia, they found that cars were more effective predators than cats!
WIRES Central Coast Branch statistics revealed 33% of wildlife deaths due to cats, 36% due to man, with the remainder due to natural causes, disease and other predators. The Central Coast area contains more pet cats which took prey home, while Dubbo has more ferals whose hunting activities cannot easily be monitored. Yet rather than blaming cats, WIRES encourages owners to keep cats indoors overnight.
Though initally used as a guideline, by August 1994 Dr. Paton's survey had been discredited. Observation of hunting cats had shown that they preferred rabbit or feral pigeons. Birds and small lizards are not practical prey for a healthy feral cat. The death of countless native animals as a result of poison laid for mice during a recent mouse plague showed that the impact of cats on wildlife was overshadowed by the impact of indiscriminate killing methods employed by humans.
A 1994 study conducted by Reark research for Petcare Information and Advisory Service covered 62.7% of private dwellings throughout Australia and involved randomly selected interviews with 4,000 households in all capital cities exluding Darwin. This survey reported a neutering rate of 95% (well above that reported by the Museum Survey) and the cat population of some cities had actually decreased. The cats' preference for hunting introduced species (rabbits, mice, etc.) rather than native wildlife was also upheld by this survey.
In fact, if cats had done even a quarter of the damage claimed for the past 200 years, there would be no small native animals of any description left in Australia.
Habitat destruction has caused native wildlife to decline while the adaptable cat can exploit the man-made niches. Ferals and strays were considered a problem by half of the Museum survey respondents and many favoured killing ferals. Lately, it has been recommended that cats found more than one kilometre from town boundaries can be destroyed even if tattooed, microchipped or wearing an ID tag.
In the Australian Museum survey, 61% of cat-owners and 77% of non-owners favoured killing ferals (whose numbers have been estimated at anywhere between 3 million and 30 million). Trap-neuter-return schemes may be inappropriate where wildlife is extremely vulnerable to cat depredation. New South Wales veterinarian Ross Hansford complained that the urban animal debate was getting bogged down in trivia: "It is nonsense we should catch, desex and then release feral cats ... They are a damned nuisance we should humanely capture and euthanase them." Findings from the C.A.T.S. 6 year study on feral colonies strongly contradict his opinions and there is always the problem of the vacuum effect.
In 1992, at a cattle station in the South Western Australian outback Professor J. Pettigrew of the Universtiy of Queensland shot 175 ferals in a 10 square kilometre area. The army shot a further 400 in three days yet a few weeks later they returned to shoot a further 200. According to Professor Pettigrew cats were pouring into the vacuum created by the extermination program. Such wholesale killing is condemned as inhumane; some of the cats killed would undoubtedly have been feeding kittens which faced a slow death through starvation or by being eaten alive by "bull-ants."
Morialta Reserve reported that the cat population had actually grown since culling. Survivors of the cull had bred and their offspring were too crafty to be shot or trapped! In contrast the trap-neuter-release of cats in 84 colonies led to an overall reduction in cat numbers as no unneutered cats were attracted to the colony and no kittens were born to replace cats which died.
It is a disturbing topic, but the Australian feral and stray population needs to be managed humanely both for the sake of the cats and the native animals, while voluntary measures need to be taken to control the pet population before knee-jerk legislation threatens the future of cat-ownership in Australia.
There is a problem with pet overpopulation and stray cats. 36,000 stray and unwanted pet cats were destroyed in Victoria alone during 1992, but many others join the feral population. Unneutered strays are highly visible in urban areas. According to the Australian RSPCA, people often did not bother looking for a lost cat, assuming it had either eloped or been run over.
Some of the methods of disposing of unwanted cats are horrific. The Hobart-based animal welfare group "Feline" reported that in Devonport, Tasmania the City Council offers free disposal of "unwanted cats." Cats are put into hessian bags and left in a small metal box at the council depot until they are collected and destroyed. Cats dumped while the depot is closed may be subjected to extremes of heat or cold and must suffer unimaginable distress. The Council claims it lacks the manpower to hold onto the cats in case the owners show up, giving any cat-haters licence to dispose of somebody's pet, knowing that the owner has no way of retrieving it. The depot's sign reads: UNWANTED AND STRAY CATS MAY BE LEFT HERE BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 8 A.M. & 2 P.M. WEEKDAYS. PLEASE USE HESSIAN BAGS PROVIDED.
To tackle overpopulation, straying and indiscriminate breeding, legislators are considering the compulsory neutering of all cats not registered as breeding stock. This finds favour among non-owners and some cat owners, but would be hard to police by councils already hamstrung by tight budgets. The Australian RSPCA recommends neutering kittens at 8-12 weeks old so that only neutered kittens would be available from pet shops, breeders and animal shelters.
In 1992 Australia's first cat registration and curfew was introduced in Sherbroke, Victoria. Proposed bills covering "companion animals" and "feral and nuisance animals" now under review in Victoria include some draconian measures:
Other councils are using the Sherbroke example in formulating their own cat control laws. New South Wales is considering:
And the Gold Coast City Council is considering:
In the Australian press, other suggestions included compulsory declawing and defanging! The press carries frequent reports of pet cats being stolen, tortured and killed as part of neighbourhood anti-cat pogroms although perpetrators are most likely using the wildlife bandwagon as an excuse to satisfy their own sadistic tendencies.
Compulsory registration of cats would probably prove counter-productive. Many owners would keep unregistered cats which then have no legal access to veterinary care including neutering! Cat legislation could lead to bureaucratic injustices; such an action taken by one council against a resident which was described:
"This [...] has been condemned on, not only animal rights grounds, but as an infringement of civil liberties. Passing laws where council officers are given the right to frighten elderly pensioners, with threats of large fines and court action, to force them into surrendering their beloved cats is not desireable in a free country such as Australia."
The Reark Survey concluded that compulsory neutering, registration and curfew are unenforceable. The cost of enforcement would be prohibitive and cause even greater animosity between cat lovers and Councils. The measures would only affect urban cats which pose less of a threat to native fauna for the simple reason that there is less native fauna in urban areas, but have little effect on stray or feral populations which remain often literally under fire. British readers have only to look at the Dangerous Dogs Act to see the sort of problems involved with any legislation of this sort.
I am indebted to Cats Assistance To Sterilise (C.A.T.S.) for their help in preparing this article. C.A.T.S. is currently the only organisation in Australia involved in long term studies of the "Sterilise and Return to Home" (Trap-Neuter-Return) method of controlling feral colonies.
Content Copyright 1994 Sarah Hartwell / Feline Advisory Bureau
HTML Copyright 1996 Feral Cat Coalition
[Page updated November 2009]